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How Thousands of Workers Won a Union Without a Vote
Inside the major grassroots victory for TV commercial makers.
By Nicole Bardasz, More Perfect Union
For decades, production workers who make TV commercials have been some of the only non-union staff on set. They’re paid low wages, lack health and retirement benefits, and are ineligible for overtime pay.
But those days are ending. After a years-long organizing effort, roughly 5,000 freelance commercial production workers just won a union with IATSE, the major entertainment union.
Their playbook for this major victory was unorthodox. Commercial workers had been organizing as a grassroots movement called Stand With Production for over half a year before they launched a public union drive.
And they managed to win their union without a vote, because IATSE had negotiated a neutrality agreement with the commercial producers’ trade group, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, last October. Once a majority of Stand With Production members signed union cards, their union was voluntarily recognized without an election.
We followed up with workers to dive into how they achieved this major win, and where they’re going from here.
How Did It Start?
Commercial production can be grueling work, involving heat exhaustion, abuse, and 16-hour days with no overtime. Like other workers, they’re at the whims of corporations and executives who are constantly trying to do more for less money and in less time.
Demands on commercial production workers intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of normal job responsibilities, production workers were assigned most of the legwork for implementing COVID testing and safety protocols. They became the frontlines of the pandemic on set.
At the same time, other unionized crewmembers were winning COVID protections on sets — protections that often weren’t extended to these non-union workers.
Production supervisor and Stand With Production bargaining committee co-chair Lynda DeZorzi said, “COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The spark that ignited the movement came in the fall of 2021 when Erin Wile and Cheyenne Cage walked off of a multi-million dollar ad campaign. They were overworked and their safety concerns were going ignored. So they walked out — and were followed by other workers on the same commercial. They also sent an email to the executive producer of the ad campaign, and then forwarded it to a number of colleagues.
That email went viral. “I must have got it four or five times from different people,” Nick Stergiou said. Stergiou is a producer and production supervisor, and helps run Stand With Production’s social media and outreach.
Soon that email turned into a Zoom town hall. Stergiou says that about 400 people showed up to talk about the state of the industry and share concerns. This type of community in the production industry was novel. Often there is only one producer on set, and workers are spread in disparate cities across the country.
Suddenly, workers no longer felt so alone. Stand With Production was born. “A lot of folks were ready to leave the industry,” Stergiou said, “They still loved what they did, they just wanted to organize to make it better.”
How They Won
This wasn’t the first time that commercial production workers had tried to unionize with IATSE. A few years ago, IATSE 871 tried to organize production supervisors and assistant production supervisors in Los Angeles.
Chris Valdez, who was involved with that campaign and Stand’s successful drive, said that the landscape was vastly different at that time. There was “a lot more fear,” he said, and there wasn’t a strong labor movement across all industries. (Production workers announced their victory amid a strike by tens of thousands of film and television writers and actors.)
The wave of labor unrest across industries, combined with the urgency of worsening conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, created a perfect storm to push this union drive across the finish line, even when workers were confronted with the power of the commercial production studios.
“I had a feeling that it would be different,” Valdez said. Grassroots volunteers organized town halls, conducted one-on-one meetings, and built an impressive social media presence to reach workers. They collected and submitted thousands of union cards from workers spread across the country.
“A lot of people were saying it’s historic,” Valdez told us, “But I think it’s on par with our people.”
What Comes Next?
The hard work is far from over. Now the union will create a constitution and start bargaining for a labor contract.
Valdez, who is on the constitution committee, wants a document that articulates member rights, such as union representation, health care, and safety. Importantly, he’s also hoping to include language that ensures union leaders are transparent and accountable to members.
The union will then negotiate with AICP for its first contract. Workers want to gain the same benefits and protections as other union members in the industry, like overtime pay, pensions, and minimum turnaround times between shifts. Safety training is also a major concern.
In the meantime, they’re helping out striking actors and writers by showing up at picket lines and bringing water to SAG-AFTRA and WGA members.
Stand With Production’s broader message is: You can do it too. If you love what you do and you want it to be better (or if you don’t love your job and you want to make it better), talk with your coworkers, find people who feel the same, and organize for a better workplace.
Who are they tagging next? Reality TV workers. Give our friends at the Nonfiction Coalition, Non-fiction Unite, and the UCAN Foundation a follow, and stay tuned for our video on reality TV coming soon…
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